Arlington Heights hero gets a new home

This morning, Dan Tsutsumi will wake up in his own room for the first time in 17 months.

The 27-year-old paralyzed Marine Corps veteran has been sleeping in a hospital bed in his parent's dining room for a year after spending months in hospitals and rehabilitation centers.

“It's strange to think I won't be sleeping in there,” Tsutsumi said of his former cramped living space, but he joked that with two deployments to Iraq he has slept much stranger places than in the new, fully accessible studio he moved into on Monday.

The new space is attached to his parents' Arlington Heights home and was built by Designing for Veterans, a nonprofit that takes interior design into consideration when building homes for disabled veterans like Tsutsumi.

“Our approach is a therapeutic one,” said founder Carol Cisco. “Every detail, every color, everything we've done here is meant to help in his recovery.”

The new space will give Tsutsumi back some of his independence as he works toward his goal of walking again. A sergeant in the Marines, Tsutsumi returned safely from his second tour of duty and was a student at Northern Illinois University when he was critically injured in an accident while swimming with friends in June 2012. On a dive, he hit the ground too hard, snapped the fifth vertebrae of his spinal cord, was instantly paralyzed and almost drowned.

After that day, doctors gave him a 50-50 chance of walking again, but his mother, Barbara Tsutsumi, said they have never stopped believing that Dan will walk again.

Already he's made dramatic progress, regaining some use of his arms. When Designing for Veterans first started to plan the room, everything was going to be voice-controlled and automated, but with Dan's progress, the plans changed.

Instead, the firm created a room that he can live in now and through the different stages of his recovery, Cisco said. Dan will still be able to control the lights, blinds and fan from his iPad.

The space is set up like a studio apartment with a living room area, bed and fully accessible bathroom. Photos and medals from his time in the service decorate the entry hallway. The backyard now has a patio and “therapy garden” that Cisco said will be a healing place for Dan to relax.

Tsutsumi said he can see himself living and recovering in his new home. It feels normal, he said, somewhere his friends can visit and not feel like they are in a hospital.

“It's just wonderful in here,” he said upon first seeing the space Monday afternoon. “It's a little overwhelming. I never would have been able to come up with anything like this.”

This is the third project for Designing for Veterans, which launched in 2010, Cisco said.

“I can't say enough about Dan's courage,” Cisco said. “His persistence and determination to walk again are amazing. And his family is so kind. Not a day has gone by in the past year when his mother hasn't thanked us multiple times.”

The volunteer organization has received thousands of dollars worth of donations to put together the furnishings and construction for the room over the past nine months.

“It's something that needs to be done and deserves to be done,” said Steve Bush, manager for Tsutsumi's project. “When you think about what somebody like Daniel does and has given for this country, we as a nation need to take care of these people.”

Bush is a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and worked for Rolling Meadows-based Northrop Grumman until his retirement this year. He, Cisco and other volunteers have been working nonstop to get the room ready for Tsutsumi.

“You've got someone who has been living in his parents' dining room and showering in his garage,” Steve said. “This will allow him the dignity that he deserves.”

The Tsutsumi family said the new room will drastically improve Dan's quality of life.

“It's just beyond what we could ever have imagined,” Barb said. “It's absolutely a healing environment. Every detail has been thought of and his every need has been accommodated.”

With the first snow of the season outside Barb said the day had a “magical” feeling, not to mention that Dan was moving into his new home on Veterans Day.

“I hope we can continue to give back down the road and help other veterans,” Barb said. “What a fitting day for this to all come together. We are surrounded by real-life heroes.”

  Dan Tsutsumi, center, took a first look at a makeover of his Arlington Heights home on Monday afternoon. Tsutsumi, a veteran who served tours of duty in Iraq, was paralyzed after a swimming accident which occurred after his time of military service. Here, his mother Barb at far left offers her approval of the remodeled room as she smiles at the family dog. Patrick Kunzer/
  Iraq War veteran Dan Tsutsumi poses for pictures Monday with his mother and father as well as those who participated in the remodeling project at his parentsÂ’ Arlington Heights home. Patrick Kunzer/
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